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© Avi Sion
All rights reserved
Avi Sion, 2002. All rights reserved.
therefore consider how we might argue in favor of a soul, consisting of a
Subject and his consciousness and an Agent and his will. If I do not mention
feelings much here, it is only because I consider them derivatives of the other
two powers of the soul; but the soul as author of evaluations (value-judgments,
choices, affections) is intended here too.
stated, I agree that the soul has in itself no perceptible (i.e. visual,
auditory, olfactory, gustatory or tactile) qualities, comparable to those in or
around the ‘body’ (matter) or in mental projections (imaginations, dreams).
This can be taken to simply mean that it is not made of material or mental
substance, granting that “matter” (in a large sense, here, including
physical and imaginary concrete phenomena) is whatever has these qualities; for
this reason, let us say that soul is made of some distinctive substance, call it
All we have done here is hypothesized, by analogy to the phenomenal realm, an
entity (soul) of different stuff (spirit); this is logically legitimate,
provided we go on and justify it further.
of a soul is constructed to explain certain phenomena, on the basis of a mass of
observations and theory-building. The soul is posited as the Subject of
consciousness (or cognition) of, first, concrete phenomena (percepts) and,
second, abstract appearances (concepts); and at a later stage as the Agent of
will, the presumed cause (in a special sense) of certain perceptible
actions of bodily organs (eye movements, speech, motions of arms and legs, and
so on) as well as of intellectual organs (imagination, attention, thought
processes, and so on). But if soul is reduced to such a conceptual construct, we
only succeed at best in giving a general description of its powers and
theoretical approach leaves us without justification for our day-to-day
propositions concerning our own particular thoughts and deeds at
any given time. For conception cannot proceed from a single event; it is the
outcome of comparisons and contrasts between two or more events. Whereas,
statements about an individual person’s present situation are not made in
comparison and contrast to other persons or situations. A general proposition
can serve as major premise of a syllogism, but to obtain a particular
conclusion, we need a particular minor premise. Indeed, to obtain the general
proposition in the first place, we need to admit some particular cases of the
same kind, which we can then generalize and apply to other particular cases
(that is what syllogistic inference is all about).
That is, when
we say, for instances, “I believe so and so” or “I choose so and so” or
“I wish so and so”, we are evidently not referring to phenomena perceptible
at the moment (belief, choice, wishing have no immediate concrete
manifestations, though they may eventually have perceptible effects), and we are
evidently not conceptually inferring such propositions from any
perceptual phenomena (i.e. what these propositions refer to are not abstract
appearances). Yet these propositions are significant to each of us, and can
fairly be declared true or false by us. Their truth or falsehood is, to repeat,
not exclusively based on experience and on rational considerations, as Buddhists
suggest, but is immediately, directly known by introspection.
This is what
I would call ‘self-knowledge’; and since this type of cognition is neither
perception nor conception, it deserves a special name – say, ‘intuition’.
My use of this term should not be taken to imply acceptance of knowledge of
other people’s souls, thoughts, wills or emotions (which is another issue,
open to debate, solipsism not being excluded) – it is here restricted to
self-intuition. I do not use the term ‘introspection’, because this may be
used with reference to perceptible phenomena, such as one’s mental
imaginations or bodily feelings.
Thus, in this
view, the soul is cognized by three types of cognition: directly by intuition,
and indirectly by conceptualization based on the soul’s perceptual effects and
its intuited states and activities. Of course, ‘cognition’ is one and the
same in all three cases; only the object of cognition differs in each
case. If we limit our consideration only to perceptual effects and concepts
derived from them, we can only construct a theoretical ‘soul’ and
refer to ‘powers’ of soul. To obtain and claim knowledge of an individual
soul and of its actual perceptions, conceptions, beliefs, intentions,
acts of will, value-judgments, affections, etc., we have to admit a direct
cognition other than perception, namely ‘intuition’.
could refer to soul with several terms: the ‘I’ of my own intuitions, the
‘self’ when assuming that others have an ‘I’ like mine (on the basis of
similar perceptible effects), and the ‘soul’ when referring to the
conceptual construct based on my ‘I’, your ‘I’ and their perceptually
evident (presumed) effects. Granting all this, it is no wonder that if we seek
definition or proof of the ‘I’ in phenomenal effects, we will not find it!
Let us now
return to these intuited propositions, for a moment. Consider this well. If I
say to you “I believe (or disbelieve or am unsure about) so and so” – did
I infer this from anything and can you deny me? Sure, I have to mean what I say
to you, be sincere. Sometimes, too, I may lie to myself, and claim to
believe something (e.g. some complimentary claim about myself, or some religious
or political claim), when in fact I do not really believe it. The human psyche
has its complexities, and we can hide and not admit things even to oneself. In
such cases, the truth of the statement can be verified with reference to a
larger context, checking if my feelings and actions are consistent with my
claimed belief. But this does not mean that all such personal claims are known
by reference to perceptible side-effects, as Buddhists claim. It only means
that, just as in the perceptual and conceptual fields, appearances have an
initial credibility but have to be faced off with other appearances, so in the
field of intuition, an inductive process of verification goes on, through which
some intuitions are found to be doubtful (due to their conflicts with other
intuitions, and/or perceptible phenomena and conceptual considerations).
it should be stressed that not all statements of the form “I-verb-object”
(object being optional) are based on intuition alone. Some have perceptual
and/or conceptual basis only, or also. For example, “I am thinking that we
should go there” involves perceptual factors, perhaps a mental image of our
bodies (mine and yours) walking along in some direction, as well as conceptual
factors, perhaps a reasoning process as to why we should go there. But some such
statements are purely intuitive, e.g. “I believe so and so” is final and
independent, whatever the reasoning that led up to the belief. Furthermore, such
statements need not be verbalized. The words “I”, “believe” etc.
involved in the statement are of course products of conceptualization; but the
intent of the sentence as a whole is a particular intuition, which the words
Also to note
well is that a proposition like “I believe so and so” cannot be based on a
coded message from the brain, to the effect that “so and so should be declared
as ‘your belief’ at this time”, for the simple reason that we have no
awareness of any perceptible message of this sort. Therefore, such a
statement is not a translation in words of a special kind of percept (just as
conceptual statements are not). Perhaps the statement “I believe so and so” itself
is the perceptible message from the brain? If so, we would be justified in
denying any intuition of soul and its states and activities. But it is evident
from introspection that we know what we want to say before we put it in words.
The words merely verbalize an object already cognized; and this cognition must
be ‘intuition’, since it is neither perception (having no perceptible
qualities) nor conception (since it is particular).
justified, in conclusion, to hypothesize, in addition to perception and
conception, a third source of knowledge, called intuition, a direct cognition
whose objects are the self (I) and its actual cognitions (I know what I
am seeing, hearing, imagining, thinking, etc., right now), volitions (I know
what I choose, decide, want, intend, will, etc., at this moment) and affections
(I know what I like or dislike or am indifferent to, what I hope or fear,
etc., at this time). I know these most intimate of things – who can
tell me otherwise, how would they know better than me what the imperceptible
contents of my consciousness are? Soul and its presumed powers – cognition,
volition, affection – cannot be conceived by comparison, since I do not see
any souls other than my own; it can only be conceived by inference from
perceptible and intuitive phenomena that we hypothesize to be its effects. The
objects of intuition may be “empty” of perceptible qualities; but they may
still have an existence of sorts, just as abstracts are not themselves
perceptible but may credibly be affirmed.
example, I meditate, watching my breath; my random thoughts cause my attention
to stray for awhile;
I drag my attention back to the object of my meditation, my breath. Here, the
direction and intensity of my attention require an act of will. The straying
away of attention from the breath is not my will; my will is what
makes it return to the breath. Phenomenally, the attention on the breath and the
loss of this attention (or rather the breath phenomenon and the lack of it) are
on an equal plane. What allows me to regard the one as mine and the other as not
mine, is the awareness that I had to make an effort in the one case and
that no effort
was involved in the other case. This ‘effort’ is the intuited volition and
that it is ‘mine’ signals intuition of soul. I may focus on the effort
alone, or by an additional act of will focus on the fact that it is mine. There
is no ‘reflexive act’ involved in this self-consciousness, because it is one
part of me watched by the rest of me.
this is all very mysterious. When we say “I think this” or “I will
that”, we have no idea where this or that event came from or how it popped up.
Certainly the deep source and manufacture of a thought or will of the soul is
unknown to us, so we cannot claim to wholly own it. We do not have a plan of
action before the thought or will, through which we consciously construct the
latter. Each thought or will, finally, just is. There are no steps or stages, we
just do it. But it is still not just happenstance; there is an author,
ourselves. We are able to distinguish, in most cases, between thoughts or wills
that just ‘happen to us’, and others that ‘we author’; we may even
identify them as voluntary or involuntary to various degrees.
All this to
say that Nagarjuna’s critique of soul and its powers, and of the knowability
of these things, is far from conclusive. Buddhists are justified in doubting and
inquiring into the issues, but from a purely philosophical point of view the
Madhyamika conclusion of “emptiness” may be considered too radical and
extreme. It may be obviously valid from the perspective of someone who has
reached some higher form of consciousness (which, I know, I have not),
but their rational arguments are not decisive. Most important, as we have
seen, Nagarjuna bases his denial on one particular theory of soul (the
atman theory), and has not considered all conceivable theories. To rebut (or
more precisely, to put in doubt) his arguments, it is therefore sufficient to
propose one alternative theory (as above done) that he has ignored; the
alternative does not need to be proved – if it is just conceivable (coherent,
consistent), that is enough.
does not, in my view, satisfactorily answer questions like ‘who is it that
perceives, thinks, desires or acts?’, ‘who is it that meditates in pursuit
of liberation or eventually reaches it?’, when he explains away the soul as a
mere cluster of percepts or concepts, as something (illegitimately) inferred
from perceptible phenomena by a presumed cause-effect relation.
it is worth noting that, although the doctrine of no-self is fundamental to
Buddhism, not all Buddhists have interpreted it as a total rejection of soul (in
some sense of the term). One Theravada school, known as the ‘Personalists’,
dating back to about 300 BCE, whose adepts in the 7th century CE
included almost one third of all Buddhist monks in India, “motivated by
commonsense, maintained that in addition to impersonal events, there is still a
‘person’ to be reckoned with.”
According to the Abhidharmakosha, a Mahayana work by Vasubhandu (4th
century CE), the Personalists interpreted the no-self doctrine of the
Buddha as signifying simply that “something which is not the true Self is
mistaken for the true Self”.
It is thus
possible to understand the doctrine of not-self as a rejection, not of
‘soul’ (‘real or deep self’), but rather of ‘ego’ (‘conventional
or superficial self’). The ego is a confused construct of ‘selfhood’ by
the soul, due to the latter’s self-identification with delusive
opinions (acquired by itself and through social influences), and consequently
with certain attitudes and actions it engages in, in the way of a
self-protective reaction. By predefining itself and its world, the soul
imprisons itself in patterns of response appropriate to that definition. It is
up to the soul to rid itself of the ego-centered viewpoint, by realizing the
stupidity and avoidability of it.
We can leave as an open issue, parenthetically, the possibility that
matter and spirit are respectively coarse and fine manifestations of one and
the same substance.
As we meditate, countless thoughts pop up, tempting us to follow
them. Eventually, one manages to hook us, grabbing our interest and hurtling
us through a series of associations. Thus totally absorbed, we forget our
object of meditation for a while, until we realize we have been distracted.
The thoughts I strayed into may have involved voluntary processes,
but my straying into them was involuntary.
According to Edward Conze, in Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin:
England, 1959). See pp. 190 and 192-7.